To bise or not to bise........that is the question

Lannion Travel Blog

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André, his daughter Natacha, René, friend Carole and Eliane....enjoying a crêpe fête with cidre and peach "cocktails". More about the crêpes on another day!

I've discovered that the ritual of meeting and greeting in France is a complicated issue and as such, remains very difficult for a foreigner to crack.  Coming from a country where people are acknowledged by a nod of the head, a wave of the hand or perhaps ignored completely, I have had an interesting time trying to solve the puzzle of when and with whom to "faire la bise". 

 A kiss, in France, is "un bisou" and the act of greeting someone with a kiss (or multiple kisses) on each cheek is to "faire la bise".  Bise, pronounced like "bees" in English, is a honey of a gesture which is bestowed upon the recipient depending on the depth of the friendship, age, rank, or possibly other conditions to which I'm not privy.

Í'm at the "controls" during out cookout with our friends. That's Anne-Christine on the far right.

The alternative to "la bise" is "the handshake", which will always occur if the requirements for "la bise" have not been fulfilled. Something to keep in mind is that "the handshake" can graduate to "la bise" at anytime without warning, depending upon intricate calculations known only to the French.    

To further complicate the issue of communication to those who have not been born and bred into the "system",  the dual words for "you"  are quantified in much the same way as the kiss or the handshake.  Unlike Americans, who lost the formal "thee" and "thou" many years ago (except for those in the Amish communities), the French still hold fast to a separation of formal (vous) and informal (tu), to emphasize their level of respect or degree of friendliness.

Fabrice is giving a little wave in the far right corner.
  If in doubt, use "vous", the experts say, unless you are invited to slip into a more comfortable "tu" relationship. "On peut se tutoyer?"  "Can we use "tu" with each other?"

During a previous visit to Lannion, Mark and I had been invited to dinner at the home of two of his colleagues, Anne-Christine and Fabrice.  We had exchanged emails before meeting and had developed a friendly rapport which continued upon our meeting in person.  I had been "vous'ing" my way through conversation over multiple glasses of wine, when Fabrice finally asked, "On peut se tutoyer?"  YES!! I metaphorically pumped my fist in the air in triumph.  A small step had been taken on the Franco-American highway to understanding.

I'm still not sure whether the admittance to the inner circle of "tu" users automatically entitles one to "faire la bise" by default, or vice versa.  On this trip, Mark and I made the acquaintance of René and Eliane, cousins of our friends Louise and André and although we were immediately welcomed with the bilateral airkiss on the cheeks, I was unsure whether to launch into "tu-ing" due to a respect issue of being a couple of years younger. It's quite possible that I did slip out of the "vous" gear and into "tu" since there was a generous flow of cidre and peach liquor cocktails during one meeting and red wine during another. Even if I did err in protocol, I doubt if any feathers were ruffled as they are both quite sympa! 

In addition, the workplace in France harbors its own set of confusing signals when it comes to communication.  As I've mentioned before, handshakes are passed all around (among the men) on the first meeting of the day and upon departure in the evening. From what I've seen, the women in the company "faire la bise" with their gentlemen colleagues but apparently there are conditions that must be met here as well.  After several weeks of daily handshaking between myself and Mark's colleagues, one day I was asked by one of them why I shook hands with the men. They proceeded to explain that usually the men and women shared "un bisou" upon meeting.  Okay, I thought, if that's the way you want to do it, I will comply.  After such an obvious invitiation (to me anyway) to participate in the local custom, I was confused when the next fellow in the handshake line reacted with surprise when I gave him an "air smooch".  I'm not sure if he considered me to be a "forward American" but he continued to keep out of bising distance for the remainder of our visit.  I quickly reverted back to my daily handshake routine lest I upset the applecart.

Over breakfast one day, I mentioned to Louise and André how I had resorted to getting all the handshakes over with all at once upon arrival at the office each day.  I had discovered that if I didn't take the initiative and search everyone out to do the necessary hand wag, then I was interruped all through the morning as each person drifted into my workspace to say hello.  Mark was even more uncomfortable with this than I was and tended to wait until he was approached in order to "press the flesh" as we say in America. 

The morning after we'd had this conversation, we were again sitting at the breakfast table lingering over our giant cups of coffee and fresh, crusty French bread.  All at once a large contingency of guests, who were staying in the other part of the guest house, came down for their morning meal.  I guess our eyes must have been as wide as saucers as each one of the vacationers made his way around the room, shaking hands with all of us. Since we had just finished our meal and were getting ready to leave I wasn't sure whether to "shake" around the table once again or just risk looking mal élevé and "wave" our way out the door......which we did....... only to see André and Louise trying to contain their laughter as we made our escape!



bernard69 says:
thanks for sharing Sandy,very informative review:I understand now a lot of things about the bloody froggies!
puis je TE faire la bise?
Posted on: Jun 18, 2009
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André, his daughter Natacha, Ren…
André, his daughter Natacha, Ren…
Ím at the controls during out …
Í'm at the "controls" during out…
Fabrice is giving a little wave in…
Fabrice is giving a little wave i…
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